Irish band abandons stadium touring for more intimate show at Thomas & Mack
By MIKE WEATHERFORD
Maybe you remember, in the weeks after Sept. 11, a rash of overheated op-ed columns proclaiming the death of ironic humor?
Most of them were overstated, if not retracted altogether as life in the United States eased back into being as sarcastically normal as possible.
Except for Bono. Except for U2.
In fact, the post-Sept. 11 climate only proved grimly compatible to the band's earlier commitment to shovel dirt on the detached irony of its "PopMart" stadium tour.
As Bono proclaimed during "I Will Follow," "This is a song about a rock 'n' roll band goin' back after their audience."
And so U2's first concert at the Thomas & Mack Center since April 1987 was more like that one than the two outdoor shows that followed; a return to pared-down guitar rock and bold-faced spiritual melodrama.
Anyone tempted to snicker that frontman Bono would embrace an American flag like a baby blanket and bury his face in it? That he would spend what seemed like half a song ("Bad") trying to light a candle held by an audience member up front?
Then you were probably at the show with the giant lemon.
The upside of ticket prices as high as $130 was that it filtered the sold-out crowd of 18,000 to the true believers, eliminating the scenesters and casual fans -- particularly the brawling drunks -- who dampened the stadium shows.
And while the technology of the 1992 and 1997 Sam Boyd Stadium dates perfected the stadium show as spectacle with vision, the return to arenas put the focus back on the band.
A simple, clean set allowed tickets to be sold behind the stage. The only design indulgence was a heart-shaped ramp that spanned out from the stage halfway across the arena floor, circling some of the general admission fans.
And the show began with the old Bruce Springsteen trick of leaving the house lights up until nearly halfway through the opening song, "Elevation."
Alas, the back-to-basics approach extended to the overdriven sound system. It was fine on acoustic moments, such as Bono and guitarist the Edge dueting on "Wild Honey." But the minute the electric guitar kicked in, it was back to the band's "Boy" beginnings in ways it probably didn't intend.
But there was no ruining this night, in a city that has a special place for U2. Bono reminded the audience of "the amazing times we've had in Las Vegas," including meetings with Frank Sinatra and Sugar Ray Leonard. Even the "PopMart" tour, he mused, must have disappointed because the giant set "just looked ordinary here."
With the "All That You Can't Leave Behind" album a year old now, U2 honed the two-hour show into a career retrospective. Old hits such as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" still packed power, sounding only a little older and wiser in Bono's delivery.
The song list was loose enough to include some surprises, but skillfully constructed enough for each song to build from the one before.
Bono recruited an audience member to strum guitar for Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." That led to an acoustic "Please," dusted off from the "Pop" album. It's about "fundamentalists who re-create God in their own image," Bono explained. "Tiny people. Religious fanatics. Religious nuts."
The song -- with the eerie lyrics "September, streets capsizing ... shards of glass, splinters like rain" -- bridged into the cleansing anthem "Bad," which in turn yielded to "Where the Streets Have No Name" and a one-two punch of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" that offered a climactic video sound byte from Martin Luther King Jr.
If most of the "Can't Leave" songs sounded either a little thin or tricked-up with backstage keyboards, "New York" became more passionate and dynamic through the leaner approach. It came near the end of the show, when Bono finally shed a leather jacket and topped his black T-shirt with a cowboy hat.
"Thank you for giving us a very good life," Bono said before a poignant version of "One," which scrolled the names of Sept. 11 victims across screens that rose behind the stage. Hopefully it wasn't a goodbye from a 21-year-old band that in many ways offered a new beginning.
Gwen Stefani returned after her band No Doubt's opening set to help Bono sing "What's Going On." Earlier, No Doubt braved an even worse sound mix to touch base with an older crowd and offer previews of its "Rock Steady" album, due next month.
If fans were wondering why No Doubt opened for U2, the new songs -- including "Hey Baby" -- may have provided the answer: They're the danceable adult pop, with new technology but old-school references, that U2 was trying to create on the "Pop" album. At least someone got it right.